“This Month in Catholic LGBT History” is Bondings 2.0’s new feature to educate readers of the rich history—positive and negative—that has taken place over the last four decades regarding Catholic LGBT equality issues. We hope it will show people how far our Church has come, ways that it has regressed, and how far we still have to go.
Once a month, Bondings 2.0 staff will produce a post on Catholic LGBT news events from the past 38 years. We will comb through editions of Bondings 2.0’s predecessor: Bondings, New Ways Ministry’s newsletter in paper format. We began publishing Bondings in 1978. Unfortunately because these newsletters are only archived in hard copies, we cannot link back to the primary sources in most cases.
Since this is a new experiment, we would appreciate hearing from you in the “Comments” section if you think an occasional feature such as this is helpful to you. For other posts in this series, click here.
1990: Prelate’s order made priest wonder what has happened to the Church
After the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued its “Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” in 1986, many U.S. bishops began expelling chapters of DignityUSA from the use of church property. The ostensible reason was that the bishops believed that the groups did not follow church teaching on gay and lesbian sexual relationships. One of the chapters which eventually was expelled from church property was Dignity/Washington in the nation’s capital, which had been meeting at the Dahlgren Chapel of the Jesuit-run Georgetown University.
Fr. Timothy Healy, SJ, was the president of the university at the time, and he personally delivered the expulsion notice to the Dignity community at a liturgy. Fr. Healy, who has since passed away, was one of the leading college presidents and intellectuals of his day. From Georgetown University, he went on to another prestigious position: the president of the New York Public Library system. In 1990, Fr. Healy gave the John Courtney Murray Forum Lecture at Fordham University, New York. During that talk, he said that he felt his expulsion of the Dignity chapter was “obscene” and made him wonder “what happened to my Church.”
A Religion News Service story published in The Catholic Messenger, Davenport, Iowa, on May 31, 1990, with the headline “Prelate’s order made priest wonder what has happened to the Church,” reported on the lecture and the comment. The story began:
“The Jesuit priest who formerly headed Georgetown University said he questioned what has happened to the Catholic Church the day he was forced to tell an organization of homosexuals that it could no longer have Mass on campus.”
The story continued:
“Fr. Healy said the university chapter of Dignity, an organization of homosexuals, had been holding Sunday Masses for 15 years when he received a formal order in 1987 from Archbishop James Hickey of Washington, D.C. that the Mass had to be discontinued.”
But delivering the news was not the end of the story for Fr. Healy:
“Although he obeyed the order, he said he was haunted by a contrasting memory of 30 years earlier. As a young priest spending some time in Spain, he was asked to assist in hearing confessions for two nights in Valencia when ‘the cathedral was reserved for “las carteladas,” the city’s prostitutes. . . .
The memory of that confessional experience of listening to people who were outcast from society was with him the night he delivered Hickey’s order to the Dignity community. He said of that night:
“For the first time in my life as a priest I felt what I was doing at that altar was obscene, and with the Spanish memory strong in my mind I wondered what had happened to my Church.”
One wonders what Fr. Healy would think about the last few decades of the Church, where under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we have witnessed an even tighter closing of the doors and shunning of anyone whose thinking might differ one iota from official doctrine. How rare it was in 1990 for a church leader to admit that he had been wrong about a negative policy regarding lesbian and gay people.
Fr. Healy’s comments were made in his lecture titled “Probity and Freedom on the Border,” which the news story described as a talk which
“. . . discussed the function of the Jesuit university as a meetingplace of Church and world. As a forum, the university, he said, ‘is full fed and draws upon the best of science, the humanities, the social sciences and the arts.”
The story continued to expand on Healy’s opinion:
“But some Church officials, like those in Galileo’s time, ‘solemnly refused to look through the telescopes for fear of what they might see,’ he said. In two recent cases the document on in vitro fertilization [a CDF instruction condemning artificial means of conception] and the first draft of a universal catechism, officials in charge of those efforts ignored Church-related academic institutions.
“Referring to the in vitro fertilization document, Fr. Healy said, ‘With five major Catholic medical centers at its disposal, Rome consulted none of them. The result is, of course, a faulty document.’ “
Healy’s comments about Catholic campuses are extremely relevant today. As Bondings 2.0 reports in our “Campus Chronicles” series, Catholic colleges and universities are often leading the way in terms of policies and programs which support LGBT students, faculty, and staff.
And despite the expulsions in the late 1980s, Dignity chapters and DignityUSA continue to thrive, bringing justice and pastoral care to those still considered outcasts.
Catholics in the future will look back on the days of struggle for Catholic LGBT equality in the 1980s and 1990s, and even up to today, and ask a similar question to Healy’s: “What happened to our Church?”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry